In Whateverwhere, USA, in a busy entertainment district indistinguishable from anywhere else, another small-plates New American restaurant is soft opening to hard praise and fanfare. A gaggle of well-dressed folks giggle in this dimly lit, generically trendy place, feting the precious food.
These people will press themselves against a long, impressive bar, harrying unflappable wait staff for cocktails dead people drank long ago. They will squeeze into dining booths, ordering from an obscurantist menu. Plates will arrive, with more color than sense, Technicolor vegetables sitting in bewildered jus. Slivers and wrappers of greens and meat barely cover the naked plate, with just enough bites to be eaten in moments.
Whateverwhere, USA, is a place you know, privileged and beautiful in a dozen different ways. Most of its pockets are filled with middle-class joy and casual affluence. It is “resurgent” as clearly proven by the “explosion” in the number of new restaurants. Its current success has risen from a recent past of high crime, low property values, and a thinning population. Media, politicians, and suburbanites are all agog. And the legacy institutions of Whateverwhere, USA — its universities, colleges, nonprofits, big businesses, and civic organizations — interrupt each other with salutes, congratulations erupting in these same lovely restaurants that reaffirm their victories.
Then there’s Black Bottom, that place in Whateverwhere, USA, where working-class black and brown folks gather or have been gathered, victims of America’s favorite game, Double Jeopardy: first exploited, then wholly and wondrously disinvested of their homes and communities. It’s where black bottoms are displaced by lighter bottoms who want this seat now, never mind who was there before.
Gentrification often starts with food spaces. Restaurants, coffee shops, and specialty grocery stores have become weaponized as tools for discriminatory development. Taking advantage of the available infrastructure in communities of color, these food spaces access depressed property prices, inexpensive local labor, and a craving for a redemption narrative. Their initial success draws media attention, patronage from outside the community, and investment in similar businesses until everything is new, cold, and impersonal — furiously shifting the demographics of urban centers.
As divested communities become attractive to racially discriminatory capital, new and unaffordable developments go up, sometimes directly replacing affordable properties, resulting in accelerated displacement and gentrification. The mechanics of this process are nuanced and unique to each location, but the outcome is somewhat consistent: Communities of color lose. And whiteness, in all the ways it presents — as business, institutions, and individuals — wins. The important nuance that complicates this racialized reality of gentrification is class.
Class privilege, which plays a role in mobility and access to investment opportunity, undoubtedly extends to African Americans and other folks of color. However, as a consequence of historical and contemporary prejudice, disproportionately fewer African Americans have access to the sort of wealth that propels gentrification.
And so it goes and goes…
If restaurants and food spaces are catalysts for gentrification, then we must confront, at the source, this cycle of race and class dispossession. What does that look like? What does it look like when political and legal institutions are complicit in this dispossession?
To counter gentrification, we must reframe our perspective of equity. Currently, when we think of equity, we mostly consider equal advantage, perpetuating the myth that a rising tide lifts all boats. We need to shift this paradigm and insist on ensuring equal disadvantage. Middle class and more affluent folks should face the same sort of scarcity and ruthless competition seen in lower socioeconomic groups.
This view of equity, in which we’d shift emphasis away from sharing rewards to distributing the burden, is necessary if we want to impair the free flow of cutthroat capitalism. When restaurateurs decide to move into communities of color, let labor’s wages soar to a living standard closer to $36 an hour rather than $15. Their cost for land (or rent) should be set at the future gentrified appraisal, not the current deflated value. And capital should match the rates of the nearest payday lender. Let these be the new terms, because these are the forever terms for the working class and communities of color.
If the restaurant-dining set — if you will, the rich — feel this scarcity, then a revolution, real change, is maybe possible.
So here’s a toast to a different future where all our glasses are half empty. . . so they can all be more full.
Tunde Wey is a Nigerian-born, New Orleans-based artist, chef, and writer who uses food and dining spaces to interrogate structures of power.